The World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) efforts to elect a new leader next week could be delayed for at least another month because of the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Switzerland.
While some in-person meetings may be virtual, it was gathered that senior WTO officials are discussing whether to postpone their plan to formally confirm Nigeria’s candidate, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as the next director-general of the WTO.
According to Bloomberg, on Sunday, Geneva’s cantonal authorities announced strict new lockdown measures amid a surge in infections and hospitalisations in the Swiss city.
From November 2 until November 29, the area will prohibit public and private events of more than five people.
The development could further disrupt the WTO’s ability to confirm Okonjo-Iweala as the first African and first woman to lead the organisation in its 25-year history.
A General Council meeting had been scheduled for November 9 at the WTO’s headquarters in Geneva to break the deadlock triggered in the appointment of a new director-general after the United States opposed Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy in the aftermath of her trouncing her only challenger, South Korean Trade Minister, Ms. Yoo Myung-hee, at the voting session.
WTO spokesman, Keith Rockwell, did not immediately respond to Bloomberg’s requests for comment.
On October 28, Washington had said it would oppose her bid because the United States preferred Myung-hee for the job.
Myung-hee has refused to withdraw from the race and has not responded to Bloomberg’s multiple requests for comment.
The US unilaterally opposed Okonjo-Iweala despite the fact that the WTO selection committee determined she, “clearly carried the largest support by members” and “clearly enjoyed broad support from members from all levels of development and from all geographic regions.”
The US move has disrupted the leadership race because all WTO decisions are made by a consensus of its 164 members, which means a single country – in this case, the US – can oppose a decision for any reason.
The office of the US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, recently provided some clarity as to why he opposed Okonjo-Iweala and what the administration’s ultimate goal is in blocking her appointment.
The WTO had in a recent statement stressed that its members indicated “strong preference for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as DG.”
The WTO General Council Chair, Ambassador David Walker, had explained: “She (Okonjo-Iweala) clearly carried the largest support by members in the final round and she clearly enjoyed broad support from members from all levels of development and all geographic regions and has done so throughout the process.”
Owing to this, Walker said he submitted the name of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the candidate most likely to attract consensus and recommended her appointment by the General Council as the next director-general of the WTO until August 31, 2024.
The General Council is the WTO’s pre-eminent decision-making body, save for the Ministerial Conference, which normally meets every two years.
Nevertheless, the WTO leadership race now hinges on the outcome of today’s US presidential election.
Some trade officials said if Trump loses the election, as many polls are indicating, the WTO’s selection process could wait until after Joe Biden is inaugurated.
Some trade delegates told Bloomberg they would find a more constructive partner in Biden whose advisers have advocated for greater engagement with US allies and to strengthen multilateral institutions like the WTO.
But the WTO selection process may not move quickly even if Biden is elected.
That’s because he won’t be inaugurated until January 20, 2021, and crucial domestic priorities such as delivering a financial stimulus package and stopping the spread of COVID-19 will take priority over WTO matters.